Our new season is now open: Spring 1677 !
Alcohol was the norm as the water was generally unfit to drink and cow’s milk was considered suspect. Thus ale and beer were the standard beverages. Beer, both small (weak) and strong, was generally purchased by the barrel for home use. Even the ill at establishments such as Bartholomew's Hospital and boys attending boarding schools, such as Eton, had a daily allowance of beer. In fact, the boys at Eton were subject to punishment if they did not use up their full daily portion.
Those who could afford it also stocked wine by the barrel, which was then decanted for use at the table. People of quality, who wished to be fashionable, would have their own bottles made, embossed with their personal crest, to use at their table. The prices of wine were carefully controlled, although smuggling (both local and international) was also common, especially to avoid tax. Jenever (Dutch brandy) was generally considered a cheaper alternative to French brandy and cognac as it was not taxed. Stronger drink was also readily available to anyone who could pay for it.
Alehouses (later public-houses) and tippling houses (unlicenced and therefore illegal) could be found on virtually every street in London. While the tippling houses sprang up almost spontaneously, and disappeared over night, the alehouses were a mainstay of not just society, but also the economy. They functioned as a sort of employment agency, a place to transact business (even pay disbursements by tradespeople to their labourers), and an informal guild shop (as members of the same profession tended to congregate at the same alehouses) where Masters could easily locate current as well as prospective employees.
Public drunkenness was not uncommon; nor was alcoholism. It was not uncommon to see members of all levels of society ‘in their cups’ at one time or another. While it was less acceptable, even women could partake of this particular vice without immediately becoming a social pariah. Still, frequent public inebriation would eventually make one a laughing stock.
Due to regular and extensive exposure to alcohol, especially stronger alcohol such as brandy or whiskey, it is likely that especially the men would build up a greater stamina and thus not be as quickly drunk. It is for this reason too that not being able to handle your drink is a true challenge.
The amount of alcohol consumed in London in the 17th Century was staggering. Still, it was a mere foreshadowing of the alcohol consumption of the century to follow.